Why Perfectionism Is a Risk for Mental Health

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

The sun is shining as I write this, but a few days ago the weather was grim. It rained continuously for nearly 48 hours, and I discovered my roof had sprung a leak. So the roofing guy arrived. He pulled pained expressions as he explained the repair options. Finally he reached a point where he said, "Look, I’m a perfectionist. For my own peace of mind, and yours, it's better if I strip and replace the entire roof."

The first thing to strike me was his take on perfectionism. Like many people he viewed perfectionism as a virtue. Don’t get me wrong: when it comes to my roof I’d much prefer the details man to one who does a rush job. The second thing to hit me was the cost, but that’s another story.

Is perfectionism the asset it’s often made out to be? Well, as in so much of life, it’s all about balance. If we weren’t interested in the pursuit of excellence, it's highly unlikely that our species would have evolved at the rate it has. I think we’d all agree that high standards are a good thing, especially when it comes to issues such as knowledge, safety, medicine and so on.

Curiously, perfectionism isn’t really about being "perfect." Perfectionism, in the clinical sense at least, is about setting unrelentingly high standards, which can apply to yourself, or others. It’s about pushing ahead to attain certain goals or standards, regardless of the personal cost. At its most extreme it’s about the person who is blind to the fact that what they are attempting to achieve is either impossible, or can only be attained at such a high cost that its benefits are questionable.

The 'Perfectionism Paradox'

If you consider yourself a perfectionist, I don’t want you to worry. It’s a term that is often used quite loosely and in that sense it doesn’t imply a psychological problem. Striving for high standards is, in my view, a good thing. With this comes an element of self-sacrifice. High achievers put in the hours. They sacrifice the time that could be spent on more enjoyable or frivolous activities in order to succeed. Candles are burned at both ends, sleep may be lost, but with luck the sacrifice achieves something.

The point at which the paradox begins isn’t always glaringly obvious to the person affected or even to others. By paradox I’m referring to the counter-productive effects of trying to do too much. If things aren’t going as planned, the obvious thing may be to try harder, to put in more time, make more effort. This brings about increasing work stress, more errors, greater fatigue and tension. If this point is reached and becomes the norm, all your efforts bring less in the way of positive results. It becomes both self-defeating and unhealthy.

Why unhealthy? Well, some perfectionists actually achieve the goals they set for themselves, but they start to think they can do more, do better and achieve greater things. This continual raising of the bar has its limits and the obvious question that arises is, "Why?" The most obvious answer lies in the personal value that person places on achievements. Self-worth for many people is based on what they do rather than who they are. Take away the job and it’s almost as if their personality has been stripped bare. They have no other interests, they may have few if any friends, they can’t see alternatives, and they view themselves as failures. What follows can be decline into depression or anxiety-related disorders.

The danger signs

If you believe every mistake is a disaster, it’s always your fault, and nothing good ever comes from making mistakes, you’re on a slippery slope. If you can never find time to socialise or do anything for yourself other than eat a meal, shower and sleep, it’s not good. If you only really trust yourself to do a job properly, if you check, double and triple-check your work, is it possible you’re overdoing things?

Setting high standards is great, but if your fear of failure dominates your life then it’s time to pull back and take stock. It’s alright to feel vulnerable, and the chances are this is exactly how you’ll feel if you agree it’s time to lower the bar a little. Life isn’t about the extremes of success or failure — it’s the great breadth of stuff in-between.

If you sense the perfectionist mind-set in yourself, well done: you’ve had a flash of insight that is worth exploiting. But if you feel it’s too hard to let go, then it’s time to get help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often used to help change the thinking patterns that reinforce perfectionism. It does, of course, mean tearing yourself away from your existing priorities. But as a perfectionist, you’ll know that change doesn’t happen without effort.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.